Questlove Has a New Creative Pursuit: Publishing

On top of being a DJ, producer, filmmaker, drummer, director, culinary entrepreneur, member of the hip-hop band the Roots and scholar of Black musical history, Ahmir Thompson, also known as Questlove, is a prolific author. He’s written and co-authored seven books, including best sellers like “Mo’ Meta Blues,” “Creative Quest” and “Music is History,” and a forthcoming children’s book about time travel.

Now Thompson is adding a prestigious new title to his wide-ranging list of creative endeavors: publisher.

This year, Thompson is starting his own book imprint within MCD Books, a publishing division at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, where he will acquire an eclectic mix of fiction and nonfiction that ranges from memoir and books by social media stars to works about music history and business.

Thompson described the imprint, which he named AUWA Books, as akin to starting a music label.

“I would like to think of myself of what Def Jam was trying to be back in 1985 — keep my ear to the streets, keep it underground and keep my eyes on people that you otherwise would have never have heard of, but who I feel can really do a paradigm shift,” he said.

He came up with the idea of starting an imprint a few years ago, when he was beginning work on “Summer of Soul,” a documentary he directed about an epic 1969 cultural festival and concert in Harlem. He was unsettled by the fact that the concert marked a pivotal moment in American cultural history, but had largely been forgotten. “With the rapid influx of death happening with Black creators and no one to pass the recipes down I wanted to bring action to a dire situation,” he said.

Publishing books seemed like a way to keep a record and give overlooked cultural figures and movements their due.

“I’m in a phase of my life where I’m trying to rebuild the world I never had myself as a kid,” he said. “Through this imprint, I’m offering a platform.”

MCD, a literary imprint that runs toward the experimental, seemed like a natural home. Thompson had been a fan and supporter of some of the imprint’s books, especially Dan Charnas’s “Dilla Time,” about the hip-hop producer J Dilla.

Sean McDonald, the publisher of MCD Books, described Thompson’s editorial sensibility as “a little disruptive and trying to do something new.”

“That polymath quality is one of the things that’s amazing about him,” McDonald said. “It feels like it’s helping us expand our scope.”

Thompson has already acquired a handful of titles. In October, the imprint will release a memoir from the songwriter and producer Sly Stone, titled, “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” about his unlikely rise to fame and his precipitous fall. Written with Ben Greenman, the book will feature a foreword by Thompson, who is also working on a documentary about Stone.

He’s also lined up several books about business, online activism and grass roots organizing, including “The Hype Economy,” about the business and culture of collecting by the entrepreneur and sneaker collector Josh Luber; an inspirational book by the TikTok and podcasting personality Drew Afualo, who’s developed a huge online following for campaigns against bigotry and misogyny; and “Handbook for the Revolution: The Essential Guide to Workplace Organizing,” by Derrick Palmer, the vice president and co-founder of Amazon’s labor union, who made headlines for his work as a labor activist who took on the world’s largest retailer.

In 2024, Thompson will release his own book, “Hip Hop Is History,” also co-written with Greenman. The book is a sequel of sorts to “Music Is History,” which looked at popular American music from recent decades and how it shaped culture and history and Thompson’s worldview.

Coming up with a name for the imprint was the hardest part, Thompson said. He wanted the name to nod to Prince, an artist he reveres. The solution hit him when he was listening to a Prince song while driving, and heard Prince make a wild birdcall sound: ah-oh-wah. He decided to name the imprint AUWA Books.

“When I heard this bird call, I was like, that’s it,” he said. “That’s my tribute to him.”

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